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Government secrecy underpins three Vancouver real estate revelations

Excessive fees, document delays and privacy policies supporting corporate interests were on full display in Vancouver’s real estate industry this week.
Retired NDP MLA David Chudnovsky stands outside Vancouver's Little Mountain property August 31 with a copy of the $334 million contract between Holborn Properties Ltd. and the B.C. government | Mike Howell
Three recent revelations by media related to Vancouver’s real estate industry have stirred debate over the apparent upper hand wealthy elites, corporate interests and our elected representatives have in purchasing and controlling residential property.

And underpinning these stories has been how government policies dictating publicly available information on real estate have been thwarting the public’s right to know.

“We definitely have a culture of excessive secrecy and government across Canada,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a civic rights group that advocates for open government policies and reform of Canada’s access to information and privacy laws.

First, News1130 radio station reported on August 25 that federal Liberal candidate for Vancouver Granville Taleeb Noormohamed was a house flipper. Five days later the NDP released a more extensive list of 42 properties Noormohamed had sold in the past 17 years.

A provincial government registry maintains information on property sales. However, a standard search costs $10.50, as does further information related to mortgages on the property – meaning the NDP spent in excess of $800 for Noormohamed’s property portfolio.

The provincial government’s ongoing public inquiry into money laundering has heard testimony from several experts stating a well-enforced property registry for beneficial ownership should be free for the public in order to provide the benefit of identifying possible illegal or unethical activity.

The B.C. government has recently launched such a registry via the Land Title Survey Authority, however, there is an additional $5 fee on top of any title search.

“No one should have to pay because we already pay for the government to collect the information,” said Conacher. “If the government doesn’t maintain that information in a way that’s accessible, that’s the government’s fault and that’s what needs to be cleaned up not just starting to charge people. Clean up your information management system.”

Real estate critic and housing activist Rohana Rezel, who was first to spot a pattern of flipping by Noormohamed and shared his findings on Twitter, noted federal candidates have no requirements to disclose assets, including real estate, while running for office.

Since politicians set housing policies (the Liberals have proposed a house-flipping tax), it is in the public interest to understand what assets and private interests the politician may have, said Andy Yan, director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University.

“It’s not even interest, it’s full-on conflict. You have a candidate who has done this type of speculation in terms of residential real estate, and a prime minister and an entire political party saying, ‘I’m going to stamp this out, I’m going to tax this.’

“So is this just theatre where these sorts of conflicts are going to be hidden or papered over?” asked Yan, noting municipal candidates file such disclosures.

A second article, from the South China Morning Post on August 31, revealed that it took the Canada Revenue Agency over five years to reply to a request for a 1995 study on luxury home purchases in Vancouver by wealthy investor-class immigrants. Access to information requests by law should only take 30 days and the government can request extensions thereafter.

The study was kept secret by the CRA (and much of the Post’s response package is redacted). The study pertains to wealthy immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China buying property and reporting little income to support such homes.

Left unanswered is why was the study was hidden, and why it took five years to produce the requested information, especially during a time when, as Yan states, there was “huge public interest” in foreign investment in real estate.

Yan said such a delay creates a “crisis of trust” with government and, in his opinion, there’s a “direct lead” from that crisis to anti-vaccine and anti-vaccine passport protests being fuelled by such distrust.

In a third example of government failure to adequately produce records, the concealment of details of the Little Mountain property sale in Vancouver came to an end August 31 when developer Holborn Properties dropped its judicial review of an Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ruling calling for Holborn’s 2008 land sale contract with the government be publicly released.

The CBC and former NDP MLA David Chudnovsky had sought the records since 2018. The three-year saga highlighted the difficulties experienced by the public, including media, in accessing information from government.

“This is a transaction of public goods into private pockets,” said Yan, adding, “this, if anything, is a clear call for transparency. Because otherwise if it’s hidden under a veil of government secrecy, it creates an environment for corruption.”

The records showed what Chudnovsky described as a “sweetheart deal” whereby Holborn was given a $211 million interest-free loan from the provincial government plus an $88 million “credit” towards the promised construction of 234 non-market units on the property (that have yet to be built).

Conacher said access to information laws are full of loopholes, particularly the one protecting corporate contracts with government, as was the case with Holborn. His group advocates for proactive disclosure of most government information, save for truly proprietary corporate information, personal information, police investigations and matters of national security.

“Information is almost never proprietary, actually. It’s just used to hide bad deals where the public is getting ripped off or government is doing favours for insiders or friends of the ruling party and they don’t want the public to know that you’re doing these favours,” Conacher said. (Holborn donated over $226,000 to the governing BC Liberals before corporate donations were banned in 2018).

Conacher adds that there are no penalties against bureaucrats and politicians who break information laws.

During this federal election campaign no federal parties have specifically dedicated part of their platform to improving access to information laws. The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats have committed in their platforms to a federal property registry of beneficial ownership. Government has already committed to a likewise registry for corporations, including shells.

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